NEW YORK - More and more consumers are giving greater priority to paying credit card debt than making a mortgage payment, showing increased financial duress, according to a report released on Wednesday.
As the economy climbs out of the worst recession in decades and unemployment remains high, financial strains have forced consumers to prioritize monthly debt payments in order to maximize cash flow.
The percentage of consumers delinquent on mortgages, but current on credit cards rose to 6.6 percent in the third quarter of 2009 from 6.3 percent in the previous quarter and 4.9 percent in the same quarter a year earlier, a new study developed by TransUnion showed.
The trend first emerged in the first quarter of 2008 when it was at 4.3 percent, Chicago-based TransUnion said.
Less emphasis on mortgage payments could portend higher delinquency rates and perhaps even more foreclosures. That does not bode well for the hard-hit housing market, which remains highly vulnerable to setbacks.
"This goes against conventional wisdom and that has always been that, when faced with a financial crisis, consumers will pay their secured obligations first, specifically their mortgages," Sean Reardon, the author of the study and a consultant in TransUnion's analytics and decisioning services business unit, said in an interview.
By making a minimum payment on a credit card before a full mortgage payment it gives consumers monetary leeway to go about their daily activities, especially if they have lost a job.
"You cannot buy groceries with your house," he said.
The study, obtained exclusively by Reuters prior to its scheduled release, was conducted on consumers that had at least one credit card and one mortgage, and examined 30-day credit card and mortgage delinquency data between the second quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009.
Conversely, the percentage of consumers who were delinquent on their credit cards and current on their mortgages decreased to 3.6 percent in the third quarter of 2009 from 4.1 percent in the first quarter of 2008.
"The 'flip' in payment hierarchy in the lowest scoring segment was evident earlier during the fourth quarter of 2007, compared to the first quarter of 2008 for the total market," Reardon said.
The delinquency rate for consumers with the lowest credit scores who were delinquent on their mortgages, but current on credit cards during fourth quarter of 2007 was 19.1 percent, and rose to 29 percent in the third quarter of 2009.
In a trend similar to that of the total market, the percentage of consumers delinquent on credit cards, but current on mortgages decreased from 18.1 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to 14.5 percent in the third quarter.
CONSUMER CAUGHT IN CONUNDRUM
"The implosion of the mortgage industry over the last 24 months, the resetting of adjustable-rate mortgages and the weak job market came together and redefined how consumers are managing their finances and meeting or not meeting their credit obligations," Ezra Becker, director of consulting and strategy in TransUnion's financial services business unit, said in the interview.
The analysis shows changing consumer preferences, he said.
"The financial services industry must recognize and adjust to the payment hierarchy shift," he said.
In California, the percentage of consumers delinquent on mortgages, but current on their credit cards increased from 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2007 to 10.2 percent in the third quarter of 2009. In Florida, this same variable increased from 5.1 percent to 12.4 percent.
In this same time frame, the United States increased from 4.0 percent to 6.6 percent.
In contrast, the number of California consumers delinquent on their credit cards but current on their mortgages declined from 3.3 percent in the third quarter of 2007 to 2.7 percent in the third quarter of 2009. In Florida, this variable declined from 5.0 percent to 3.9 percent, the report showed.
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